There is much confusion about celibacy in both the church and society. I am privileged to accompany a number of individuals as well as a national, ecumenical network of solitaries. It is a delight to publish this guest post from one of those I accompany as her ‘guardian of vows’ on behalf of the bishop to whom she made them.
I rejoice that this vocation is flourishing in our church, I am convinced that it is a sign of the Spirit at work and that we won’t be able to make sense of our sexuality debates unless we get the vocation to celibacy right.
The writer wishes to remain un-named here.
The website for the Single Consecrated Life is here.
My own list of readings in celibacy is here.
My account of a day with friends in a network of solitaries here.
“This life of love and joy, peace and challenge” What a wonderful description of the vocation to celibacy.
Where did it start? With separation and divorce or before? While I was married I was committed to my marriage, but before that there was a long time of inner conflict between the desire to be loved, needed and special to one person (ie in a romantic and sexual relationship leading to marriage) and the desire to give myself wholly to God (whatever that meant) and also a tug to the solitary life – being alone might make me feel unloved and unwanted, but rarely bored or lonely. I thought I could both give myself to God and to my marriage – and perhaps with a different person that might have been possible, but not with that particular person. Plus I was very young and mixed up and still working out who I was after the trauma of losing my hearing and going through puberty at the same time. But I don’t want to write that time out of my journey to finding out what this call to consecrated celibacy means for me and say it only started with being single again – because the journey is part of who I am now – and from that time comes huge personal, spiritual, emotional and mental growth as well as the teen, my 2 step daughters and step granddaughter! And the ‘giving of myself to God’ was for a while satisfied in my priesthood – a dedication of myself to serving God and the Kingdom, Church and people with all that I am.
I am amazed looking back at my journals for 2010 (I left my husband in July 2009) – even in the midst of the devastation I felt around my marriage ending (I used a picture of the bombed Coventry cathedral to describe my emotional and spiritual life at the time – in a pile of rubble, structure largely gone, but with some falling the shape of the cross so I knew God was still there) – I wrote that if I didn’t remarry I wanted to be ‘positively single’ – I didn’t want to go back to waiting for someone to come along …
Six years of exploration followed – putting myself back together, rebuilding the structure, a sabbatical which incorporated a 19th annotation ‘30 day’ Ignatian retreat in daily life (which deepened and grew my relationship with Jesus and enabled me, for the first time, to appreciate how deeply and unconditionally I am loved by God), finding out who I really was, who God had created me to be … it was during this period that I began to appreciate being single so much that it became difficult to imagine life any other way – in 2014 visiting a retired, lifelong single, friend and feeling ‘at home’ in her house and ‘this could be me one day’ and feeling at peace with that. (Although if I’m honest it took me quite a bit longer to feel totally at peace with the idea of giving up the physical intimacy of sex forever!)
Part of the journey included exploring the sense of calling to ‘something else’ that was still nagging at me – I looked at a huge variety of expressions of religious life and community – oblate or tertiary of traditional communities, Fresh Expressions/ New Monasticism, Iona community membership (of which I have been an associate member all my adult life) – but none of them offered that total commitment of a vow of celibacy, a total giving of the whole of myself to God, in the midst of daily life as a working single mum. And that, I was increasingly being convinced, was what God was calling me to.
Also in 2014 I actually attended the novice vows of a friend joining one of the new dispersed religious communities – a very moving occasion – and at that service received a very strong sense that my ‘community’ was encompassed in my priesthood, in my membership of the Church – and it is from that moment that I began to look for ways of being a solitary, single and celibate, within the structures of the Church and discovered SCL (thank you Google).
In 2016, I was interpreting at a service on Valentine’s day – naturally celebrating marriage (as part of a series of Sundays in that church celebrating love in all its forms, including friendship and parental love) – I was happy to be there and feeling included as I was, a single divorced person, and signing ‘Come down O love divine’ I was visited with an overwhelming sense that I didn’t need romantic love in my life – because I had God’s love – and I knew, absolutely, at that moment that was all I would ever need. I came home that day and emailed Beverley from SCL to make the initial contact and start the next stage – of being an enquirer and then seeker into SCL, a process that culminated in professing first vows on 1/10/18, received by Bishop Paul Bayes in Bishops Lodge chapel, Liverpool witnessed by Beverley from SCL, Richard Peers (guardian of the vow) and my closest friend – the teenagers godmother and Passionist oblate.
Woven into this journey – and still ongoing – is an exploration of what celibacy – and consecrated celibacy – means. Richard Peers on this blog has conducted a helpful review of the literature available – many of which I read along the way (as well as others) and like him conclude they are too often written either as a reflection on being single and abstaining from sex now (but still open to romantic/sexual relationships) or on celibacy for Roman Catholic priests and religious – a necessary consequence of their calling rather than the focus of their calling. I was also constantly irritated by the assumption that being celibate means you are more ‘available’ in terms of time and energy to others (and sometimes to God as well). As a working single mum this certainly wasn’t my experience – as well as feeling utilitarian and reductionist – as trying to justify consecrated celibacy in the modern world as something inherently ‘useless’ or ‘lacking’ and which therefore needs to serve some practical function.
A far cry from the vows of SCL which reflect an understanding that celibacy is an invitation, a gift and a means of grace – and vowed celibacy is analogous to marriage vows.
Consecrated celibacy is more than ‘being single and refraining from sexual relationships’, more than ‘chastity’ (which Richard defines, helpfully and concisely, as ‘the right ordering of sexual desire and action to which all Christians are called’). For me it incorporates both of those things (I can’t write at all of celibacy within relationships either as a positive or a negative – apart from pointing to a number of excellent blogs critiquing the concept of ‘celibate same sex relationships’ as being a stick to beat gay people with) and goes further. At a material level it is being no longer available for romantic/sexual/exclusive relationships with others – which is why the BSL sign for ‘celibacy’ I have chosen is a colloquial ‘off the table’ sign. This may seem like defining it by means of a negative – but I experience it is a positive decision to take myself off the market as it were – a gift from God of the freedom to make that choice in the context of the sense of security of being totally and unconditionally loved by God. I can see how that sense of being totally and unconditionally loved by God would also put me in a strong position to enter a new relationship with someone – but that’s not my vocation. But knowing I have that choice makes my vows of celibacy a free gift of myself to God in response to God’s invitation, gift and grace. It was noticeable that I had a specific moment of commitment in my journey when I committed to live not only externally as celibate (I had not been involved in any form of romantic/sexual relationship (although not from longings) since I was single again), but also internally, i.e. stop looking out for the possibility of a new relationship. This moment of positive commitment happened at the point I decided to follow up my sense of calling in 2016 – I decided to ‘live’ as a celibate as the best way of finding out what it meant.
I have often been asked by friends during the discernment process ‘but what happens if you meet someone and fall in love with them’ – my response has always been ‘it’s the same as being married. If you meet someone and find them attractive but are vowed to someone else or to celibacy – you don’t just have to act on those feelings of attraction, you may need to enter a process of discernment to work out what’s really going on …’ The Church Times in its recent series on religious life published a comment by Fr Erik Varden, Abbot of Mount St Bernard Abbey “[the monk] is bound to a solitude of heart that requires him to be celibate. The covenant he makes with the Lord is an exclusive, nuptial, covenant. Like marriage vows, his are binding until death … it is a lifetime commitment” – the calling to a ‘solitude of heart that requires celibacy’ seems to me to be another way of expressing ‘unavailable for romantic/sexual/exclusive relationships as a positive choice’ – analogous to choosing one partner over all the possible other people you could be with and committing yourself to them for life. And like a good life partnership it is the place where the person God created me to be can emerge and flourish; a place of growth and challenge; a place of refuge, joy and peace (and an ongoing daily renewal of commitment and sometimes wishing you’d made a different choice).
As part of my preparation for consecration, I wrote this declaration (which will be incorporated into my rule of life)
I am called to ‘solitude of heart’ to respond to God’s call to freely devote myself more and more to Jesus – to engage with and be aligned to his sacred heartbeat in the world – with all the joy and pain that brings and wherever it leads so that I may grow in warmth, compassion and love towards God, all people and all of creation. It incorporates a call to solitude and silence within the busy life of a working single mum, it includes intercession for the world, feeling the pain of the world, experiencing love – human and divine – and sharing that love with others.
Consecrated celibacy is the means by which I respond to this call.
Celibacy is a gift and a mystery; a charism, a sacrament and a vocation. It means being open to new friendships, but not ‘sussing out’ potential mates. It means intimacy and real conversations (including conversations about sex where it comes up) but not intimate conversations designed to create a pair bond or exclude others. It means celebrating and enjoying touch, hugs, a hand on the shoulder and natural human contact, which may carry an erotic charge, but not taking any steps to further that contact ‘over the line’ towards more sexual contact. My line is nothing that I would be ashamed or embarrassed to have others witness. It means accepting romantic, sexual and erotic feelings towards others as a natural part of life, to be recognised, accepted and enjoyed for what they are but then to be ‘let go of’ and not cultivated. (Augustine’s quote (admittedly about sweet scents not romantic/sexual/erotic feelings) is good here “when they are absent I do not seek them; when they are present, I do not refuse them: yet at any time I do not mind being without them” along with his caveat “At least so I seem to myself; perhaps I am deceived” and the knowledge that sexual feelings can be strong and irrational!)
The rule of life is to support and guide this call, to help keep me focused and accountable so it’s not just about self-fulfillment, but also about moving towards greater union with Christ in this way.
It is to this life of love and joy, peace and challenge that I have committed myself to with the help of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.